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Q & A about Jesus Before the Gospels, Part 1

Steven pointed out to me that the first part of the Q&A also got obliterated and sent into the stratosphere during our recent technological nightmare.   So I need to re-post it.  Here it is!

I have received a number of interesting questions about the book, raised by these three segments of Q&A.  If you have any you would like me to address on the blog, let me know!   Here is the original post:


As I have already indicated, my book Jesus Before the Gospels will be published in a month, on March 1.   As part of the promotion and marketing of the book, I have written out a few answers to questions that my publicist presented to me, as a kind of Q&A that she can use for her work of getting the word out there.   I answered twelve questions related to the book, and will post my responses here on the blog in three bite-size chunks.  Here is chunk #1.


  1. What is it that drives your fascination with how Jesus has been ‘remembered’ and ‘misremembered’?

When most people today read the Gospels of the New Testament, they nearly always assume that these accounts of the words and deeds of Jesus were written soon after his death by people who knew him and his disciples: these are transcripts of the things Jesus said and did, down to the minute detail.  What people tend not to realize is that these accounts were written 40-60 years after Jesus had died, by people who did not know him, who did not live in his same country, who did not speak his same language.  So how did these authors (who are all four anonymous) acquire their stories about Jesus?  The answer scholars have given for a very long time is that these authors had heard stories about Jesus that had been in circulation for year after year, decade after decade, after his life.   I’ve long been intrigued by this phenomenon, and several years ago realized (at last!) that it is closely related to a field of study pursued by psychologists, sociologists, and anthropologists, all of whom are interested in how human memory works.  Is memory always reliable?  Can eyewitnesses be trusted always to give an accurate account of what happened?  Do stories ever change when they are told?  Do they ever not change?  What happens to stories – not just in early Christianity, but in life in general – when they are told and retold over decades?  In short, how does our knowledge of human memory help us understand what was happening to the accounts of Jesus’ words and deeds as they were circulating in the decades before any of our Gospel authors wrote them down?

  1. How have scholars traditionally explained the gap of time between when Jesus was alive and when the Gospels were written, and why is that problematic?

Many scholars have somewhat unreflectively maintained that the Gospels ultimately go back to eyewitness testimonies to Jesus’ life and that they are therefore reliable; or that oral cultures – such as in Roman (then Christian) antiquity – preserve their traditions with a high degree of accuracy.   I realized several years ago that…

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Weekly Readers’ Mailbag: February 7, 2016
Technical Problems on the Blog



  1. Avatar
    paul c  February 5, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman,

    I tried to post this a few days ago but I think that it went to Russia. If the question did make it through, please disregard. The question’s topic is a bit outside the 4 gospels but the theme fits the general discussion. I apologize.

    If I understand this correctly, scholars discern similarities of style and vocabulary (in addition to other qualities) among certain of the Pauline letters and this leads them to determine that those letters would likely be authentic. This fact would seem to suggest that the authentic letters exhibit a very accurate tradition in their recording over time; accuracy and precision that seem to point toward a continuous written, not oral, transmission.

    In your opinion, were the Pauline epistles ever in the oral tradition?

    You new book is on order!

    • Bart
      Bart  February 7, 2016

      No, Paul’s writings were almost certainly transmitted in written, not oral form

  2. Avatar
    Steefen  February 5, 2016

    2.How have scholars traditionally explained the gap of time between when Jesus was alive and when the Gospels were written, and why is that problematic?
    Steefen: In the act of creating memory is writing/documenting memory. Why was it necessary to remember Jesus after the Jewish Revolt began in 66 continuing after it ended in 70? With the gospels being written in Greek, who then thought it was necessary to remember Jesus leaving oral tradition memory behind and solidifying memory more with writing down/documenting memory of him?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 7, 2016

      Sorry — I can’t follow your questions!

      • Avatar
        Steefen  February 17, 2016

        People write things down so they will not forget. Why was it necessary to remember Jesus after the Jewish Revolt began. With Paul not valuing the memory of Jesus by writing his life down for his Church communities, why should anyone else? Who is the next Greek-speaking Jewish person or Gentile to find more value in Jesus than Paul?

  3. Avatar
    SteveWalach  February 5, 2016

    In Friday’s New York Times there is a news article about the Sanders-Clinton debate that took place the night before. The most popular readers’ comment (1102 “recommends”) responding to the news article begins,”I think I must have been watching a different debate from the one written about here by …”

    Less than 24 hours after the fact, eyewitness memories/interpretations are greatly at odds, and 1102 NYT readers at least generally agreed that the commenter’s re-visioning of the debate had merit.

    Interestingly, if there had been no opportunity for NYT subscribers to voice opinions, only the front page article would enter, if you will, the historical record

    Recorders of Jesus’s words and actions written 40 to 80 years after the fact would most likely have had to decide which remembrance/interpretation of events or speeches got the green light. Or were they simply writing historical fiction?

    Are there indications that the same gospel writer reported or included two or more differing “remembrances” or interpretations?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 7, 2016

      Yes, there are famous “doublets” — two accounts of the same event. E.g., Mark tells the feeding of the multitudes story twice, once to 5000 men and once to 4000.

      • Avatar
        godspell  February 7, 2016

        We have worse disagreements about numbers of people at modern events–how many people actually showed up for the ‘Million Man March’? Nobody really knows. Police have tried to come up with methods of counting how many people are in a crowd–there is little agreement about the efficacy of their methods, and event organizers nearly always want to say it was more.

        Whether the account is religious or historical, stories that involve large numbers of people from ancient sources (and medieval sources as well) should always be viewed skeptically. Regarding the numbers, at least. But if somebody says thousands, it was probably more than could be easily counted.

  4. talmoore
    talmoore  February 5, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman, scientists often talk about how we tend to remember more highly emotional events and to forget the banal and mundane (that’s why beta blockers can prevent us from remembering events because they reduce our level of stress associated with it) — for example, this is why we remember where we were the morning of 9/11 but do not remember what we ate for lunch last monday.

    I’m curious how far you take this fact when trying to reconstruct the historical Jesus. For instance, if we were to pin-point the most highly emotional event in the gospel narrative, I’m sure that it would be, without question, the arrest and execution of Jesus. So it would make sense that the details of this event would be the most readily remembered by his surviving followers. Where were they when Jesus was arrested? On the Mount of Olives. An unnecessary detail that there’s no reason to think has been misremembered. What were they doing? The disciples were trying to sleep while Jesus went off to pray. Again, nothing particularly odd. Why were they there? Because they were hiding from the Jerusalem authorities. This was only given a cursory exposition in the gospels, probably because the disciples didn’t want to dwell on the implication of Jesus needing to hide from the powers-that-be. How was Jesus arrested? Judas kissed Jesus on the cheek, signaling to the authorities which one of them was the leader of the seditionists. When was he arrested? After midnight on the first night of the Passover. In sum, all these details don’t add up to much: Mount of Olives, first night of Passover, sleeping and praying, a kiss on the cheek. The event that helps tie up all these mundane details is the actual, emotion-laden arrest of Jesus. From that point on, everything the disciples recalled or thought to recall was filtered through this one event, coloring everything that happened in the several months leading up to it with the taint of Jesus’ arrest.

    That is to say, while neither Jesus nor his followers saw the arrest coming, they came to look back on all the events leading up to the arrest through the lens of the arrest, making them remember any and all things that seemed to prefigure Jesus’ arrest. Most, if not all of the mundane details that had no perceived connection to the arrest were likely forgotten by the disciples, lost to posterity forever, just like what we ate for lunch last monday (assuming you don’t have a receipt).

    • Bart
      Bart  February 7, 2016

      What psychologists now generally argue is that shocking and graphic events are remembered more *vividly*. But not necessarily more *accurately*. That’s a key distinction. Over the past 30 years it has been shown that emotionally charged memories in fact are *not* necessarily more accurate. Strange but true.

  5. Avatar
    han23614  February 6, 2016

    As the last part of your answer for the final question from the publisher states,

    ” … we will have a much clearer sense of what the Gospels are and of how we should understand the stories they tell about the historical Jesus.”

    Truly wish this happens to me after I read the book and hopefully to many of the church leaders, or at least they “reflectively” consider.

  6. Avatar
    godspell  February 6, 2016

    The Iliad exists today in its modern form because of oral tradition.

    We can be pretty sure that the story did not happen as it’s told to us, even if you leave out the part about kibbitzing gods (and we can be pretty sure that it wasn’t originally meant to be a literal recounting of the Trojan War, literalism never being the mission statement of poetry).

    But inspired by it, Schliemann did go out and find Troy. Which we wouldn’t have known about at all. If not for the Iliad.

    Oral tradition should not be underestimated.

  7. Avatar
    Lee Palo  February 6, 2016

    I’m excited to read the new book. I was wondering if you have any interaction between issues of memory in the Gospels and literary invention in the book. The walking on water in Matthew strikes me as an example of a literary invention–that since water symbolized chaos, Jesus walking on water represented his power over evil and chaos, and that in Christ his followers can have power over evil and chaos too. The majority of John’s Gospel strikes me as a literary invention, particularly as it is related to sayings of Jesus, and that the author wasn’t all that interested in portraying Jesus as he was during his pre-resurrection ministry, but as the Johannine community at the time of the Gospel’s composition “experienced” the resurrected Jesus. Pretty much any “I am” saying seems to me to reflect how the later church theologically understood and experienced Jesus, and was not meant to be understood as quotes from the historical Jesus.

    In any case, it has always struck me as kind of funny that Christian fundamentalists place so much emphasis on the “autographs,” forgetting that a long amount of time passed between the history the Gospels supposedly record and the time they were written down.

    • Bart
      Bart  February 7, 2016

      I think it is extremely difficult (impossible?) to decide if a legendary detail found in only one Gospel was invented by the author or by a story-teller before him. (In any event, Matthew got the walking on the water from Mark, even if details had to come from somewhere else, or from his own head/pen)

  8. Avatar
    Stephen  February 6, 2016

    Prof Ehrman

    In general I’m fascinated by the moment in these oral traditions when it becomes “writing down time” and specifically why Mark decided to write it down.

    Do you speculate at all on the possible sources used by the author of Mark in your new book?
    Can we say anything useful about the “writing down time” by observing these oral cultures?


    • Bart
      Bart  February 7, 2016

      My view is that we can’t really know what kinds of written sources, if any, were available to Mark.

  9. Avatar
    john76  February 6, 2016

    Is any of this related to what you talk about in “Did Jesus Exist” with the gospels as haggadic midrash?

    • Bart
      Bart  February 7, 2016

      It’s related in that story tellers tell their stories in light of their knowledge (for jewish storytellers, their knowledge of Scrpture e.g.)

  10. Avatar
    Pattycake1974  February 29, 2016

    I just received an email that your new book has shipped! Yay!!

  11. Avatar
    Phrygia  April 6, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman, doesn’t your study into memory science make you question how much certainty you can give to much of ancient history? Are they any areas where you felt fairly certain before but now are less certain after taking the memory findings into consideration?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 6, 2016

      Yes, some of the views I sketch in my book are areas that were new to me before doing the memory research.

      • Avatar
        Phrygia  April 9, 2016

        I am reading the book, and I have a question about the audiobook. Why don’t you do the narration? I’ve been listening to you in your videos and great courses for several years but this is the first of your audiobooks I’ve heard and it’s a bit strange to hear someone else say your words, I can tell at times you meant something to be read in a certain way, like humorously or forcefully, but the reader sounds out of step. Just one those not enough hours in the day things?

        • Bart
          Bart  April 10, 2016

          Yes, it’s a long and rather boring process. I never get asked to do it, and if I were, I would probably say no. Did it once, and didn’t much enjoy it!

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